‘Retweeting History: RT, the 1917 Revolution Anniversary and the Global Media Landscape’

Professor Stephen Hutchings and Professor Vera Tolz, The University of Manchester. ‘Transnational Russian Studies Symposium’, Durham University 14-16 September, 2017.

Abstract.

This paper will focus on contemporary Russia’s primary international broadcaster, Russia Today (RT). It will emphasise the significance of RT’s emergence, like that of the nation whose interests it is tasked with promoting, at the intersection of the new communications revolution and the end of the Soviet Union. Through a case study of the channel’s current multimedia project designed to mark the anniversary of the 1917 Russian revolutions, the paper will trace RT’s political and journalistic ethos, its audience strategies and its deployment of digital technologies. It will demonstrate how the 1917 anniversary project serves to negotiate the tension between (a) RT’s role as the projector of a state with a profoundly contradictory attitude to Bolshevism, and (b) its reliance on cosmopolitan allegiances, tastes and sensibilities born of a transnational, networked media landscape in which the Revolution has universal currency as an icon of leftist mythology, a transformational world event and a tool for scrutinising current global crises. The paper argues that the project’s key strategy (the creation of a gallery of key revolutionary figures, each with a fictional Twitter account) enables followers to engage in ludic explorations of the complex interplay between past and present, national and transnational. It also allows RT to maintain an ironic distance from the debates it generates. We conclude by using the 1917 project to challenge conventional wisdom on RT’s recent shift from a tool of Russian soft power to the naked instrument of an ‘information war’.